Category Archives: Arts

Zellij (Moroccan tile work), zouaq (painted wood), carved plaster and wood, ceramics, monumental architecture, and more…

Replicating and generating patterns of Islamic art…

is a whole lot harder than you might think–but also kind of obsessively compelling.bV90jY4TdgxKR9EQ32sl5tPrKBkHQk9MdCQS8rgczvM
Here, Adam is trying to teach me how to see the patterns, the grids, underlying biomorphic designs in the Al-Attarine, but really, it’s a bit of a hopeless task.  Take this panel, for instance:
I thought this little creature with eyes should be the repeating motif.  So adorable!
Oops.  Probably that’s not meant to be a creature at all.  The double loop at the center of the image below (and placed in the four corners of the design as well) is a better unit to focus on for tracking the extension and tessellation of the image.  See the grid that comes into focus around that repeated double loop?  You’re looking for a rhomb, a dynamic (or diagonal) square shape that repeats both vertically and horizontally.
And now can you see why some of us might find this process challenging?

The plaster carvers would have created a cardboard (in medieval times, stiff paper or vellum) template to draw the design grid on the fresh, damp plaster.  Then they would have “pumiced” the shape through the template, leaving black pigment on the plaster–and then they would have used fine, sharp tools to carve out the plaster into these shapes.

Adam has carefully parsed pattern after pattern for us.  Here’s just one example: the stunning door and knocker at the Al-Attarine.  The knocker itself is a khatam (static square plus diagonal square extended out from it), extended further into an eight-pointed star…P1000939
What about the door behind the knocker?  It’s almost like a variation on my beloved “breath of the compassionate” pattern: khatams, some surrounded by four dynamic squares, diagonal crosses, plus safts (or petals) to fill out the pattern.

Adam takes the analysis one step further, drawing out the incredibly fine (and faint) biomorphic design traced within each of those large safts:P1000941
Isn’t this amazing?  First, the painstaking detail of the design–and then the painstaking, even meditative recreation of that design.
Not to mention the painstaking correction of student errors in attempts to further replicate those designs…

Geometry and generation:
On the geometrical side, meanwhile, Richard (having walked us through the many stages of creating a 12-fold rosette among other patterns), asks us to think about the shapes that can be generated from a khatam.  Some of us understand the question well enough to sketch some possible shapes.  (Tip: think about cutting pieces out of a khatam or possibly extending corners out to make a new shape.)

Richard chooses the most useful propositions and has us cut out templates for creating watercolor zellij–paper versions of the cut tiles used in Maghrebi mosaics.
We paint and cut out the shapes, and then we play with different arrangements, from small to large:
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Some principles for productive play: 1) think about the white space; 2) join shapes point to point, not side to side; 3) follow straight lines to extend patterns; 4) be intentional about color patterns; 5) share your pieces; 6) have fun!

Breath of compassion

If you’re like me, all that beauty is still too much.  So let’s concentrate on geometry alone for the moment–geometry in the form of zellij:


I’m still overwhelmed.  Five-pointed stars, ten-pointed stars, safts (petals) of many different varieties.  How do I make sense of unity and variation here?

According to Critchlow,“Islam’s concentration on geometric patterns draws attention away from the representational world to one of pure forms, poised tensions, and dynamic equilibrium, giving structural insight into the workings of the inner self and their reflection in the universe.”

I need a little help translating that structural insight.

Critchlow and his students, including Richard and Adam, work to articulate those structural insights by reconstructing the geometrical forms one step at a time.  Implicit in this workshop is the sense of a spiritual discipline in following, re-enacting the construction of a pattern, as if those of us laboriously following the model before us could also abstract ourselves from three dimensions to two or even one, from embodiment to spirit.  Certainly the room is full of concentration, and amusement at our struggles.
BbAileQRyw5Cmsh_c0y7NvBparVQvXWVH83ZKr4JR50,yczdbh7v_akZCgyFX1PA5EGU7W8U18QUyvUsL9yNo7MSama straightening out one of my many confusions…

Geometric patterns in the Maghreb are most consistently based on four-fold symmetry, Richard tells us.

Richard begins with first principles: the point as abstract concept and its material embodiment; the line coming from the point, defining the horizon; the circle, drawn from a point on that horizon, representing unity: the heavenly circle.
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He draws two departing circles, with the same radius, centered where the circumference of the original circle meets the horizon:
Centering the compass on the top and then the bottom of each vesica (intersecting shapes–see handwritten note above), we draw intersecting arcs to define a vertical line.

Next, we place the point of the compass at the intersection of the vertical line with the original circle and draw semi-circles touching the line of the horizon: this produces four petals.
If we draw diagonal lines out from the center, passing through the outer intersection point of each petal, we will have marked eight points on the original circle: these eight points define the shape of the khatam or seal of Solomon, a static square with a dynamic or diagonal square intersecting.
Richard speeds through this introduction and goes on to develop the basic relationships sketched here into a pattern with four- and twelve-fold symmetry.  But I’m lost, still stuck back on a phrase lightly tossed off: a pattern of khatams touching at the points of the dynamic squares creates a pattern known as the breath of compassion (or breath of the compassionate), after the work of medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Arabi, who spent time in Fez.

After class, I ask Richard to explain the pattern and the reason for its name more fully, then I go back to my hotel room with its functioning internet and look up Ibn Arabi.  Here’s what I find:

“Ibn al-‘Arabî looks at God’s creativity as an analogue of human speech. Just as we create words and sentences in the substratum of breath, so God creates the universe by articulating words in the Breath of the All-Merciful (nafas al-rahmân), which is the deployment of existence (inbisât al-wujûd); indeed, existence itself is synonymous with mercy (rahma).” [“Ibn Arabi,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online, first published 2008]

I’m reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where one works to breathe in suffering, and breathe out compassion.  To think of existence as synonymous with compassion offers a wonderful (if sometimes distant) ideal.  This month (September 2013) a Pakistani Christian church will be bombed and a Kenyan mall violently occupied by terrorists.  Breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion.

The breath of compassion pattern expands into khatams, then compresses back into a cross or x form as each point of the khatam folds in.  This visual, from, makes it easy to see the relationship between the two forms:


The pattern can be elegantly simple, or marvelously complex:
images from and

Daud Sutton says that the naming of this pattern after Ibn Arabi is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the pattern itself is clearly of long standing.  I like connecting this pattern to a sense of divine creativity, and to the central prayer of Islam: Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim.  In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful.

Monumental art and contemplation

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The problem with entering a space like the courtyard of the Bou Inania or Al-Attarine is that the design is overwhelming: it feels impossible to process all the wealth of visual detail and beauty.  (Rather than focusing on a single place in this post, I’ll be using images from both medersas [Islamic schools]  as I wrestle with the kinds and inter-relationships of Islamic patterns.)

Perhaps if one were a student here, living and studying and praying in this space every day, the pattern would work on you at a subliminal level—or perhaps each day you might pick out a different element, a different image or detail, as a kind of meditative practice, focusing your mind.

But for those of us merely passing through, how can we receive the gift of this place more deeply than a superficial, dizzying glance?

Does analysis help?  Isolating specific elements to try to understand their meaning, before reconsidering them in context?



Maybe if you’re Adam or Richard, it helps significantly.  But even for me, slowing the eye, forcing it to rest and register, is a useful exercise.


How do we learn to look in this kind of a space?  Let’s start with the architectural layering:
geometric patterns on the floor
speaking to the zellij on the lowest level of the walls,
with calligraphy at eye level,
then biomorphic plaster carving
leading up to intricately carved cedar wood,
which leads the eye still higher, to the heavens.  The cedar may be the only original component here: the plaster has certainly been renewed, and some of the zellij shows its age.

According to Daud Sutton, “The visual structure of Islamic design has two key aspects: calligraphy using Arabic script—one of the world’s great scribal traditions—and abstract ornamentation using a varied but remarkably integrated visual language.” (Islamic design: a genius for geometry, 2007, 1)

Calligraphy tends to be placed at eye level or slightly above—never below the head—and it turns the oral tradition of the Qu’ran (which, as you may know, is the recitation of the visions granted to Mohammed, and only belatedly a written text) into luxuriant visual beauty.  For anyone struggling to read Arabic script, the beauty quickly overwhelms the meaning, but for students writing and memorizing different verses of the Qu’ran on a daily basis, the beauty presumably extends the meaning of the verse.


Geometry and biomorphic design
The ornamentation surrounding this calligraphy “revolves around two poles: geometric pattern, the harmonic and symmetrical subdivision of the plane giving rise to intricately interwoven designs that speak of infinity and the omnipresent center; and idealized plant form or arabesque, spiraling tendrils, leaves, buds and flowers embodying organic life and rhythm” (Sutton, 1).  Infinity and the omnipresent center: Allah is the center of all things, of the infinitely varied development of the universe.  For Keith Critchlow, geometry “reflects the facets of a jewel, the purity of the snowflake and the frozen flowers of radial symmetry” while biomorphic design registers “the glistening flank of a perspiring horse, the silent motion of a fish winding its way through the water, the unfolding and unfurling of the leaves of the vine and rose.” (Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, 1976, 8)  All three aspects of Islamic pattern inter-relate: biomorphic pattern relies on geometrical relationships for its tessellation and expansion;

and different modes of Islamic calligraphy may lean toward biomorphic flowing lines on the one hand

or more fixed geometric shapes on the other.


Biomorphic design
Adam stresses the logic inherent in the biomorphic elements of Islamic design: spirals are curves that look back to their points of origin.  Biomorphic designs flow out, then back, bowing in humility to the creator.  Balance is central to biomorphic design: nothing should stand out.  All is humility and peace.


And well-nigh impossible beauty:


Craftspeople in the Fès medina

As part of the study tour, Jess Stephens split us into two groups and set up a series of visits with artisans working in the Fez medina.

Seffarine square is the brassworker’s square, with metal being hammered, joined, and heated.  To make a brass pot, for instance, first the side is hammered out, then the base, then the two are joined.
Small pieces of brass and aluminum are combined to make the seam, then the seam is heated in an open fire:
Once the pot comes out of the fire, it’s beaten some more, to smooth and strengthen the seam.

Finished pots are lined with aluminum; they’re surprisingly light-weight.

Around the corner from the brassworkers is a quiet square known as Carpenter’s square, though there’s only one woodworker still present, urged by city government to remain.
He makes simple three-legged stools for other artisans in the medina; he can also make musical instruments, or even a peg-leg (a small model hangs in the doorway of his workshop as a way of clarifying specifications).


The dyer’s street (As-Sabbaghin) is also located near Seffarine square, along the river dividing the Karouine bank of Fes from the Andalusian bank.  On a cool morning, the steaming pots of dying fabric have the feel of magic potions.
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And it is a kind of magic, to watch the newly dyed fabric drawn up out of the bucket where it has been steeping:

Dark colors are died in hot water, light colors in cold water.  These days the alum (to fix the color) is included in the dye.  Traditional dyes drew colors from banana leaves, from henna, from kohl, from mint leaves, from zaatar (oregano).

Even the original silk is luscious, satisfying even just to look at: the colors gild the lily.  The “silk” itself is imported from India, but it can also be sourced in Morocco from agave plants (sabra).  Sabra silk is preferred to silk from silkworms because Mohammed banned his male followers from wearing gold or silk, but Sabra silk is a vegetable fibre, exempt from this prohibition.

The knife sharpening shops were not as picturesque as some of the other workshops, but here I had a sense of the ongoing life of the medina.
Everyone needs sharp knives and scissors, after all.
And the shop next store was well-stocked with the small motors that are used to twist the braids that are used to trim djellabas–and we had been ducking those twisting threads at various points on our wanders through the medina.

Fès used to have a public bakery in every neighborhood; people would make their bread at home, and then carry it to the public bakery to be cooked.  Now, as more and more people have ovens at home, the public bakeries are becoming increasingly scarce.  A pity, since the smell of baking bread wafting through the streets is pretty wonderful.

The horn-carver also seems poised on the brink of the past: very picturesque, but I suspect he survives mostly on purchases from foreign tourists.  He takes a sheep horn, and straightens it with a vise to flatten it out.
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Then he cuts, trims, and carves different shapes and utensils out of that horn:
The smallest shapes, like toothpicks, involved fine levels of sanding (and tough heels!):
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The metal embossing seemed most directly relevant to our study of Islamic pattern: the tools, the patterns, the geometric relationships.

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The artisan had worked all over the world: Spain, the United States.  But Fès is home.
Some of his work is drawn from patterns; other pieces he seems to know by heart.

In early fall, by the time you see the sign for the tannery, you’ve already been smelling its potent presence for a while.  Jess handed out squares of ambergris to sniff as a kind of antidote for the smell.

We started up in a shop overlooking the tanneries.  Here you can get a kind of overview of the process: (some of) the pools of white are filled with chalk and salt, to separate the skin from the fur.  Then there are the pools of pigeon droppings, to soften the leather.  SONY DSC   SONY DSC

The dying containers are filled with colors derived from vegetables: red from poppy, blue from indigo, tan from a combination of saffron and mimosa.  There are no yellow vats: unadulterated saffron is so precious and powerful that the dye is painted directly on the pre-softened skins.

The men who work in the tanneries coat their bare legs and hands with olive oil to protect them from the dyes.  (But I don’t imagine the work is good for one’s health.)

That was the overview.  Then two of us went into the tannery itself for a closer look:
Lots of skins.  If you can get past the corpse effect, you can see why softening might be desirable.
Painting the skin with chalk-salt solution just inside the entrance to the tannery:

Scraping fur from leather:



Clearly, the work is physically hard; there’s also an art and a rhythm to it.


And a community among the tanners:

The dyed skins are laid out to dry on any available surface: rooftops, hillsides (near the Merenid tombs).



After drying, the skins are scraped with a half-moon shaped knife, to soften them even more.  FInally, the carefully treated leather is cut and stitched into bags, shoes, belts, and other accoutrements.


Fès the palimpsest

Narrowly defined, a palimpsest is a piece of writing material that’s been used more than once, so that earlier writing has been erased or covered, but traces of that previous text still remain.  Fès is like that, with medieval elements peeking through its modern modes of functioning.  The two time periods intersect most obviously, perhaps, in the fact that the both the UPS guy and the Coca Cola truck are… donkeys.

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The cry of the medina: Andak! Balak!  Look out: donkey coming through!


Can we recreate the previous writing of this palimpsest?  Maybe not.  Who really knows what the oldest layer of Fès (the Idrissid period) looks like?

Alla, Iraqi-Moroccan owner of the guesthouse Dar Seffarine and an architect specializing in Fès restorations, focuses on some basic elements. “Fès had water and materials for building. Mud houses had existed here for many many years, but with the major construction of the city in the 8th century, they imported architectural principles from the East.”

Some of Fès’s rivers are still visible, channeled through cement, but not yet covered over.  The river still serves (and suffers from) the crafts practiced through the city: here, the tannery…
and, hidden under the bridge, some small-scale metalworking.

Materials for building:
The foundational material is “medlouk” (I think this is the regional word for what Marrakshis call tadelakt): 50% lime and 50% sand. The lime (chaux in French) is composed of limestone, marble, and shells; Romans similarly used limestone and volcanic rock to make a kind of concrete.

Medlouk takes its form from the “lime cycle,” connecting the architecture of this area with the limestone of the landscape. What’s the lime cycle? you ask. (Well, let’s pretend you want to know.) When heat is added to limestone, a chemical reaction occurs: CaCO3 turns into CaO (quicklime) plus CO2. When you add water to quicklime, you get slaked lime: CaO + H20 = Ca (OH)2. Expose slaked lime to air and it will slowly react with carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate or limestone, plus water: CaCO3 + H2O. So here’s one way to think about all this: the buildings in Fès are made out of limestone–mined, fired, and reconstructed limestone. Its architecture is recycled rock–mineral shaped and transformed by humans, but still rock–almost a living, breathing stone.

David Amster, a resident of the medina and a passionate advocate for this traditional building material, says lime mortar is “like a solid sponge.” Because it’s porous, it insulates well: medlouk lets moisture escape. It’s also oddly flexible: in the slaking and the curing process, molecules themselves stretch. Medlouk distributes the weight of the walls–otherwise, the stone at the bottom of a tall Fassi structure would explode from the weight of the upper (stone) stories. In case of seismic activity, medlouk has some “give” to it; if it cracks, it can heal itself. By contrast, cement sets fast but it is brittle–and unlike medlouk, cement is not porous, so it traps moisture.
Cement covered with more traditional plaster

David leads our study tour on a walk through the medina, working to disprove the myth that Fassi exteriors were unimportant in comparison with interiors.  David insists that the original façades were beautiful–though he grants that the interiors were still more beautiful.  The highlights of our walk touch on elements that could have come from many different periods of Fès’s history, though they stress the basic elements of water and building materials.

Until recently, water in Fès was free, available through an ancient system of fountains and pipes.  A siqaya is a public fountain, built by a wealthy homeowner as a public benefit (the plaque on the right announces the name of this siqaya:
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This particular siqaya shows the distance between earlier craftsmanship and more recent repairs:
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The left shows the original zellij; the right shows the relatively shoddy repair work.

The black calligraphy around the fountain is produced by glazing the tiles black, then carving out the negative space around the shapes and letters.  Once again, the recent repair work (visible in the right hand image, in the odd little alien-esque figures) seems laughably poor in comparison with the original.
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Medlouk as an exterior surface has a certain austere beauty, but it could be decorated by pressing wire into the plaster surface before it dries, as in the example of this carefully remodeled house, Al Adir:

Or this more extravagant design:

Below is another design pattern, with bricks visible below. Bricks were expensive, so they would have been left exposed (while stone would be entirely covered with medlouk):

Carved wooden surfaces offer another medium for elaboration: amazingly detailed even when  discoloured by age, and half-hidden by an unattractive street lamp.

Other arches sport small decorative zellij and calligraphy at the keystone:
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David persuaded a friend to restore a wall within the medina to the standard he thinks would have obtained during original construction in ancient Fès : exposed bricks, interesting design, elegant medlouk.  Imagine an entire medina like this:

Architectural principles from the east:
After water and building materials comes architectural principles.  Alla describes  simple shapes, responsive to the environment. Lines: “Follow the breeze. The old street plans are a diagram of the movement of air. The plan of the city sent all roads to the north. But then in the summer came sandstorms, and they moved some of the streets to block the storms.” Circles: “The medina is an organic form. At the center of each neighborhood, there is a mosque. Around the edges, the free façade of that mosque, some trading develops into a suq. Around the suq, houses are built; around the houses, gardens; around the entire area, a wall.”

This map from shows some of the street layouts defining Fès today, though most of the derbs or residential streets don’t appear.  The rivers that watered the ancient city are still visible at the margins.

But descriptions of Idrissid Fès, according to Wikipedia, describe a rural town, a far cry from the sophisticated cities of Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) and Ifriquia (Algeria/Tunis).  Imagine two small centers, with open areas surrounding them.

The Almoravids
After Idrissid Fès comes Almoravid Fès.  In 1070, the Almoravid Ibn Tashfin conquered Fès and transformed its two rural towns into a single city. Walls separating Medinat Fès from Al-Aliya were taken down, bridges were built over the river, and a new wall was built to connect the two centers. The Qarawiyyin mosque was expanded and renovated in 1134-43 and Fès became a famous center for Maliki legal scholarship. (The Malekite school is one of four major traditions within Sunni Islam: more details coming on a historical reference page.)
Image from Walter B. Denny Islamic Art Photographs, University of Washington Digital Collection

The next dynasty, the Almohads (1121-1269), broke down the old Idrissid city walls and constructed new walls which still define the outer boundaries of Fes el Bali, the old city.  Under the Almohads, Fès became a major center for trade, the largest city in the world in the years 1170-80.  Part of this merchant city’s structure were the funduqs that served as hostels for traveling merchants, with an open courtyard for pack animals surrounded by artisan’s workshops on the groundfloor, with rented rooms on the floors above.

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The magnificently restored funduq now serving as the Nejjarine Museum of wooden arts and crafts was built much later (1711), but it gives a (grander) sense of what the earlier funduqs might have been like.

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Still, I think everyone would agree that the Marinid dynasty (1244-1465)  left  the most extravagant visual effects, particularly in  medersas like the Bou Inania and the Attarine.

Bou Inania

These architectural gems are so complicated, though, that they deserve a post or more just for themselves.   Coming up soon!

Fassi nostalgia

The city of Fez is shrouded in a mist of nostalgia.LdE9gPyyjd1oe4NVXMeW2JmkdqmwBUTJmDuO6s9RP0E[Note: Fez in Arabic is spelled Fas; the adjective for things associated with the city is Fassi.]

Everyone who writes or speaks of it—and there are many people who love this city deeply—seem also to speak of its present state as a dim reflection of its past glory; often, they describe the city as perched on the brink of destruction.

The local bakeries are closing; the public fountains are drying up. The buildings themselves are on the edge of collapse, some or many of them, depending on whom you talk to.IMG_0662
I find myself totally caught up in this sense of imminent ruin, only to remember that Edith Wharton was already marking the city’s demise in the 1920s, and Paul Bowles foretold its end in the 1950s.  [In what follows, I don’t mean to downplay the real threats of overcrowding and limited resources–I’m just struck by the persistent perception of imminent demise.]

Wharton, an enthusiastic supporter of empire, is hard to read today: her prose is at times wonderfully detailed and energetic, but it is almost always marked by a willful prejudice, a pre-judging of what she sees.  Her “first vision” of Fez is introduced by the ideological (and clearly false) claim that “Nothing endures in Islam except what human inertia has left standing and its own solidity has preserved from the elements.  Or rather, nothing remains intact, and nothing wholly perishes, but the architecture, like all else, lingers on half-ruined and half-unchanged.”  I want to distance my view from Wharton’s, but she too is focused on Fez’s liminality.
“There it lies, outspread in golden light, roofs, terraces, and towers sliding over the plain’s edge in a rush dammed here and there by barriers of cypress and ilex, but growing more precipitous as the ravine of the Fez narrows downward with the fall of the river.  it is as though some powerful enchanter, after decreeing that the city should be hurled into the depths, had been moved by its beauty, and with a wave of his wand held it suspended above destruction.”  Note how “dammed” evokes the idea of damnation just before Wharton changes direction from religion toward a narrative that might have come from the Thousand and One Nights.

Paul Bowles had his own predispositions.  He wrote in his preface to The Spider’s House, “I wanted to write a novel using as backdrop the traditional daily life of Fez, because it was a medieval city functioning in the twentieth century.”  The struggle for independence intervened, however: “I soon saw that I was going to have to write, not about the traditional pattern of life in Fez, but about its dissolution.”
P1000846 But has traditional life really dissolved?  Or has it just morphed to include high top sneakers and modern shoes along with seasonal mandarins and beans?

Sure, there’s an uncanniness here: a medieval city in the modern world,minaret with satellite dishes
minaret with satellite dishes

an acclaimed World Heritage Site that survives partly on its own terms, but largely as a simulacrum of itself, offering up its performance of authenticity to the tourists whose influx of money keeps the life support functioning.  I don’t mean this critically: I’m fascinated by the liminal status of Fes, and even more fascinated by the length of time that liminality has lingered.

I hope you will linger in Fez with me for the next week or so.  I have come down the mountain from Ifrane to Fez to take a study tour of “The Art of Islamic Pattern” led by two British artists and teachers: Richard Henry and Adam Williamson.
The course includes teaching sessions on the geometrical and biomorphic patterns of local Islamic art, along with tours of the medina—tours focused on architecture and traditional arts.  Disclaimer: as a result, my image of Fes is shaped by a number of English-speaking interpreters, guides, teachers (and of course books in both French and English).  So here’s what’s coming up: a quick primer on the history of Fez in relation to the rest of Morocco and the Islamic empire; a glance at Fez as a palimpsest, full of historical layers and overwriting; an overview of domestic architecture; a glance at some of the logic underlying geometric pattern in Fassi zellij or tile mosaics; a still briefer glance at some principles of biomorphism in Fassi plaster and wood carving; and a trip through the artisanal centers of Fez, divided into four separate posts.  Lots of photos and not too many words, I promise!

Lynn’s rugs

I had not wanted to live in an expat community during this year in Morocco, but as I trudge up the hill toward the suq, I begin to see some advantages.  I am wearing a pair of linen trousers and a linen shirt, both of which belong to Lynn-the-textiles-expert-who-is-leaving-for-Doha. I still don’t know Lynn’s last name or even her email, but over the next few months, I will be wearing her clothes, drinking out of her mug, eating her spices.  Channeling Lynn.  At the same time, I will be regretting my failure to record her impromptu lecture-demonstration on Moroccan rugs and textiles.


Lynn’s first career was as a spinner and knitter in the United States, and she achieved national recognition for her work.  When I came by to look at her rugs and her give-aways, she was packing up some of the journals that featured her work.  She showed me some exquisitely fine hand-spun lace knitting she had done, and (like all true spinners) dismissed my inability to work with a drop spindle.  “It’s easy—and so convenient!”  Convenient, yes; easy, for some.  Give me a wheel any day.

“What brought you to Morocco?” I asked, but I should have known.  It’s an old sad story.  Textile artists, like many other artists, can’t survive on their work. When Lynn realized that even the top people in her field could make a living only by traveling and giving workshops six months out of the year, she decided she needed a day job—and that day job, in academic support, has taken her on a twelve-year odyssey around the globe, with a two-year residence in Morocco.

I think about Lynn, not only as I wear her clothes, but as I look around at her rugs, scattered through our house.  We have an exquisitely soft, hand-spun, naturally colored brown-and-gray striped piece that I can’t bear to put on the floor.  “It could be a couverture (bed covering) or a rug,” Lynn acknowledged, and I imagine huddling under its fibers in the cold winter everyone warns us about.
Similar in coloring, but rougher to the touch is a goat’s wool rug I’ve put under my work table.  “Walk on it and the fibers will become shiny,” Lynn advised.
In the living room, we have a large rug, striped red, purple, blue, with one thin slice of bright orange.
“Those will be synthetic dyes, probably, because the orange is not available with the natural dyes.  That stripe, it constitutes a signature,” Lynn told me.  “The way it stands out, calls attention to itself: it’s a mark of individuality, idiosyncracy.”
On the other side of the living room, there’s a slightly older piece, hand-spun, all in red, with wonderful variations in color; the red comes from cochineal—crushed insect shells.  Remember the insects that live on Opuntia–prickly pear cactus?
There are rugs I didn’t buy, because we felt so short of cash: one rug that had a wonderful patched hole in it, from serving as part of a Berber tent; another where the colors were too bright for my taste.  There were other rugs Lynn wasn’t selling—she felt obliged to return them to the person she had bought them from, because she had had to work so hard to persuade the original owner to part with them.  There was the immense “aliens” rug—yellow and brown with other accents, full of humanoid figures.  “The prohibition on reproducing the human figure comes from Arab culture, not Berber society,” Lynn noted.  “But what would you do with this piece?  It needs to be hung in some monumental space.”  She described another rug as being “woven with time.”  The weaver used the same dye but left the rug exposed to the sun during the weaving process so that some of the coloring would fade, creating a two-tone pattern.

Lynn was particularly interested in a transitional moment in bouchereite: rag rugs produced by Imazighen (Berber) women.  “There’s this explosion in creativity,” Lynn asserted.  “All of a sudden, there were these industrial scraps available, and they were cheap, and so the sky was the limit.  It wasn’t like working with wool that you had to shear and clean and card and spin.  The rags must have felt like a windfall, a nearly free resource.”  In her collection of bouchereite, Lynn tracked the way weavers would create a sense of motion in their work: the blue river, she called one piece, for the meanderings of blue rags down the middle of the pattern.
Another piece that she called the red trellis showcases the traditional diamond pattern that Lynn insisted was vaginal—“I have a picture of this old weaver woman, her knees wide, holding open her vagina: it’s a classic diamond, I’m telling you”—and a recording of lineage, a weaver recording her family back through her mother and her mother’s mother.
Lynn prized the oddities, the idiosyncrasies in rugs: “These are the places where you see a woman, weaving in isolation, making a statement, creating something personal.  The workshops that have been set up more recently make women’s lives much better by offering them a community in which to work, and providing a clearer market for their goods, but there’s a loss in terms of creativity.  Instead of a single woman making her individual decisions, there are set patterns that are taught and maintained.  They’re all good—I just happen to like seeing the individual weaver at work.”  But the transitional moment passes.  “After that initial explosion, the spark goes out,” Lynn said.  “It’s as if the women suddenly looked up and recognized what they were working with: garbage.  Call it recycling, repurposing, call it what you want, but it’s the same old story: you don’t get any real resources after all.”  Now there’s a Marxist-feminist analysis: base and superstructure as seen through the lens of gender.

Someday, once we acquire a car and my Darija improves, perhaps we’ll go rug-shopping for ourselves, for the education of it.  In the meantime, Lynn’s rugs have moved into Omar’s house, and together they offer a beautiful, comfortable back-drop to our lives here.  And that’s even before considering the linen towels, sheets, and pillowcases Lynn gave me: suq finds that I hope to replicate, if my fingers can ever become as knowing as Lynn’s, as quick to feel the differences among linen, cotton, and synthetics.  “This piece,” she said, showing me a prize she would take with her to Doha, “came from Hungary: you can tell by the design.  I love to see these fabrics travel, to imagine the route that would bring them to this little suq in Ifrane.” Fabrics and people, wandering through this landscape.


Lalla Aisha: women’s ceramics in the Rif

We had originally decided not to visit Lalla Aisha to see her ceramics because the village where she lives was over an hour away from the village where we were staying.  (“Lalla” is an honorific, something between “Ma’am” and “Lady.”)  We didn’t want to spend 2-3 hours driving on rough roads.  But James was recuperating slowly, so  we decided to stay an extra day and make the trip.  The drive was rough in places, but also breathtaking, weaving up the side of mountain, running along a mountain ridge, with the sun gleaming beside us.


We arrived and were offered Moroccan tea with cookies, then proceeded to converse in a hodge-podge of languages.  James was a big hit, throwing out his scarecrow arms and legs, mugging for his new friends.  They tried to teach him how to ask for manly tea in a café, and when James entered into the spirit of the joke, trying to pronounce the words with macho enthusiasm, they laughed till they cried.  The children looked on, baffled at their father and our hosts alike.  Lalla Aisha’s grown son told us how relieved he was that we could stand a joke.  “Some visitors, they come and sit here with their long faces.  We’re not always sure they’re human.”

The lesson started with a trench in the field behind the house and workshop.  Grab some clumps of dirt (also known as raw clay).
Break up the clumps into fine clay dust.
Sift out any remaing lumps.
Add water to make… clay.
Knead the clay to make it smooth and consistent.  Think about what shape you’d like to make.
Our whole family wants to make mugs.
Jeremy gets a little extra help from Lalla Aisha, which means he has time to make a candlestick as well.
After the pieces are made, and as they begin to dry a little, Lalla Aisha explains how to decorate them with slip and pigments: both of these made from dirt or stone she has dug up a little farther from the house.

These stones produce the slip and pigment.
The mug is covered with slip before being painted with a darker pigment.
SONY DSCDark stone is crushed, then water is added to make a pasty paint.
Paintbrushes are made from animal hair with clay handles.
The work is absorbing and lots of fun, even if James’s mug is the only one to pass inspection.  (“We might actually fire and sell this one!”)
We won’t be taking our less polished work with us: there’s no time to fire and finish the pieces.  Instead, we have the simple pleasure of the process.

It’s dark by the time we’re done, and we drive slowly over the rutted path.  Hayat has driven us here in her 4×4, since our car would not be able to manage the road.  There’s some conflict about the piste: Lalla Aisha wants her neighbors to contribute to repairing the road but they say she should bear all the cost, since she’s the one who has foreigners coming to visit.  In the dusk, some boys on a nearby hill throw a rock at the car.  Hayat’s son shouts at them, and Hayat tells him sharply to be still and quiet.  “Just stupid boys,” she says.  But there’s a bit of tension  in the car, and as we take the road home, through the dark now, Hayat is concentrating hard on the road.  I think about how much courage and agility it must take for her to do the work she does, translating between cultures, living on the cusp between comparatively wealthy visitors and impoverished neighbors, and I’m grateful for the charm and graciousness with which she has welcomed and cared for us.



We got tired of waiting for Youssef to produce the car we’re supposed to be buying, so we rented a wreck for a week and drove north to Chefchaouen.  This small town in the Rif mountains must be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, so I will mostly let the photos speak for themselves.

SONY DSCThe drive north was brutal: the car had no air-conditioning, and the plains of central Morocco get hot-hot-hot in mid-August.  The roads, which are indeed much better than they might be, are still pretty bumpy, and the checkerboard of cultivated fields comes in a drier, more dramatic palette here than in the mid-Atlantic landscape I’m more used to.

We were very impressed by the cantilevered loading of hay and straw bales on these trucks: the load at times seems to be double the size of the truck carrying it.

By the time we reached the mountains, we were gasping for water and slightly cooler air.  Chefchaouen was a sight for sore eyes.

Chaouen is undeniably a tourist town, but it’s a relaxed tourist town.  We stayed in an apartment in the medina itself, and over the course of our visit,  we saw the shops and the townspeople relaxing with one another rather than performing for tourists.SONY DSCThis is not to imply that we were not busy being tourists ourselves, of course.  There was Jeremy’s favorite woodworking shop, where we spent so much time, we bought a nominal spatula out of sheer embarrassment.

Jeremy also loved the scent, soap, and potion shop:
There were artisanal workshops, where the master weaver took a liking to Jeremy; he was about the age of the weaver’s own sons, who were already helping out in the workshop.  We were particularly intrigued by the use of appropriate technology: bicycle wheels being used to wind weaving bobbins.
Why so many colors, James wanted to know, if you’re only going to paint the buildings blue?SONY DSCBut of course there’s all the interior colors and careful wood-painting (zouaq) to consider as well:

In the heat of the afternoon, we joined a host of other, mostly Moroccan tourists, trying to cool off at the Ras el Ma, the little waterfall just outside of town:

And we loved eating dinner looking down on the bustle of the central square:

But mostly, we loved the quiet early mornings…


and the sense that we were taking a long drink of something–color or beauty or peace–that we had been craving for years without ever realizing it.